Ángel Solorzano spoke so little English when he arrived at Kearny High he had to communicate with the school’s principal, Ana Diaz-Booz, through sign language.

That’s not unusual for Diaz-Booz. The students who enter her school run the gamut in language skills. She gets those with a basic grasp of English, and those like Solorzano, who don’t know a word.

What wasn’t typical is what happened next. Diaz-Booz placed him in a mainstream English class, where he thrived. Within a few months, he’d picked up basic English. The following year, he entered AP courses. Now, Solorzano is on his way to UC Santa Cruz on an academic scholarship.

Had he walked into a different high school, the outcome may have been different. He’d likely have been placed into a separate class for English-learners, an ESL class, as it’s called. There, he’d practice the language until teachers and counselors felt he was ready to take classes that count toward graduation.

These classes, where English-learners can be stuck for years, sometimes go by a more ominous name: ESL ghettos. It’s a pejorative, informal moniker. But it might help explain why more than 6,000 students in San Diego Unified have been in district schools for six or more years and still aren’t proficient in English.

English-learners have stuck to the bottom rung of academics in San Diego Unified. Last October, when the district released its data showing how many students are on track to meet revamped graduation requirements next year, a mere 9 percent of English-learners made the cut.

It’s not just the case in San Diego. School districts across the country are confounded by the question of how to help students learn English and academic content simultaneously.

Few schools have cracked the code. But Kearny may offer an important key to what’s been missing.

Kearny High is made up of four small schools, an example of the so-called schools-within-a-school model. When they head into ninth grade, students choose a school based on their interests: international business, engineering and design, digital media and design or science and technology. Students who know little or no English head into the School of International Business, which has more supports set up for them.

Test scores can’t show us everything. Especially since the state suspended its Academic Performance Index, a system that ranks schools based on test scores. But an average of the last three years from which data is available gives us a glimpse at how English-learners at Kearny’s School of International Business stack up to English-learners in other San Diego Unified high schools.

Average API Score for English Learners, 2011-2013

How it Happened

To tell that story, Cheryl Hibbeln has to go back about 15 years, before she was promoted to the Central Office to oversee high schools districtwide. Before she and Diaz-Booz became principals and led a major overhaul that changed the school entirely.

Hibbeln recalls one day she and Diaz-Booz were walking through campus when they stopped at the door of the ESL class. The room was filled to capacity. The walls were barren. There were no strong students in the class who could model language or academic skills. The least experienced teacher was leading students who were in most dire need of help.

“I’ll never forget. Ana turned to me in that moment and said, ‘If we ever become leaders of this school, this room will never exist,’” Hibbeln said.

The school had other problems, too. Academically, it was in such bad shape the state was threatening to take over.

“I think what stands out the most from that time is that there just didn’t seem to be an intensity or sense of urgency that you’d like to see on a high school campus,” Hibbeln said.

At the time, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was offering money to high schools that wanted to break into smaller campuses. Kearny took advantage, and opened the 2004 school year with four separate academies. Hibbeln and Diaz-Booz were two of four founding principals who took over.

One of their first orders of business: Get rid of the classrooms that isolated students.

Some separate ESL classes remain – they serve a purpose for some beginning English-learners, Diaz-Booz said – but they’re limited, and are no longer shoved to the corner of the school and treated as an afterthought.

Teachers looked for ways to transition English-learners to mainstream classes as soon as possible. (Some students, like Solorzano, skip those ESL classes altogether). Mainstream teachers learned strategies on how to reach each student, being mindful of each one’s unique learning needs.

Principals tweaked and improved the system over time. They added after-school tutoring sessions and additional counselors to catch students before they fell through cracks. Students built relationships with teachers, and with their peers.

The schools-within-a-school model made some of that easier. Organizing a big high school into smaller pockets lets teachers develop deeper relationships with students and create a more personalized environment.

While many of the changes start to reveal how Kearney has improved as a whole, they don’t necessarily explain why it’s working for English-learners. That’s because, for Hibbeln and Diaz-Booz, it’s hard to separate the strategies leaders use to reach English-learners from the ones that they’ve found successful overall.

‘I didn’t think I could do it. And I can do it.’

Sit down with Hibbeln and Diaz-Booz, and a word cloud soon emerges: A school’s culture has to align with its structure, as well its instruction. Have high expectations for students and put supports in place that help them advance. Move with a sense of urgency.

But for leaders who have managed to find success where other schools haven’t, what stands out more are the words you don’t hear: “English-learners.”

It’s not that Hibbeln and Diaz-Booz don’t think about these students. It’s more like they don’t think about English-learners as a clearly defined group, something “other” until they pass a test.

Nor do Hibbeln or Diaz-Booz seem particularly good at articulating a vision for the school, though they both seem to be operating with a clear understanding of what it is.

“It’s really hard to define,” said Hibbeln. “It’s not just a small schools model, or any one strategy. It’s having a belief system, and having everyone in the school buy into that. It’s being very purposeful about everything that happens in school, and talking about how to turn those ideas into action. Somewhere in there, that’s where the magic happens.”

What Hibbeln and Diaz-Booz can tell you is what they believe. Things like: Every student will be prepared for college, regardless of whether they even want to go.

In their junior year, kids can enter a fast-track program, a kind of partnership Kearny has with Mesa College where students take college courses that count toward graduation. Diaz-Booz said almost every student at Kearny’s School of International Business takes advantage. She tells kids from the beginning that’s the expectation, and looks for opportunities to advance them into AP classes, even if they don’t think they’re ready.

“Oh, I have kids that fight me on this,” said Diaz-Booz. “They say, ‘Well I don’t want to.’ Yes you do. I want you to try it. And if you try it and you don’t like it, then we can have the conversation. And I’ve never had a kid try it and come back to me and say, ‘You know what? I don’t like it.’ They always say, ‘I didn’t think I could do it. And I can do it.’”

Making this happen is work from the moment a student walks in. For students who don’t know English, that begins with an interview. Diaz-Booz or a counselor interviews students, assessing language skills and how much education they’ve had.

Then comes an important piece, often overlooked by other high schools: Staff members hand-select classes and sections that work best for each student. The idea is not to group too many English-learners into the same class. With a good mix, strong, native-English students can model language and academic skills.

“You don’t just load classes into a computer, feed in kids’ names, then cross your fingers and hope that it spits out a schedule that works for students. That’s not how it works,” said Hibbeln.

There are a few typical ways English-learners get instruction in most schools. They can be tossed sink-or-swim into mainstream classes without support; they can be placed into separate ESL classes, where they mostly practice language with other students who aren’t fluent; or they can be added to mainstream classes, with extra supports. The last approach is called sheltered instruction, and it’s the one Kearny leaders have found most effective.

The big problem with separate ESL classes – apart from being a surprisingly ineffective way to actually learn English – is that students aren’t receiving credits that count for graduation (or the ones needed to get into college).

Students who remain in this environment build up academic deficits year after year. Yet, Hibbeln said, the norm for English-learners in most district high schools is still to spend most of the day in separate ESL classes, where they fall behind in credits.

With sheltered instruction, on the other hand, teachers design lessons to make college prep material accessible to students. Teachers know exactly who their English-learners are. Instruction includes a lot of visuals. Academic vocabulary is built into the day and teachers devise ways to keep students participating and talking. Passivity is not an option.

“Really, these are just good teaching strategies – not just for English-learners,” said Diaz-Booz.

Crucially, sheltered instruction at Kearny allows students to remain on track for graduation. In this way, the school is able to address the central problem of teaching English and content simultaneously.

As a principal, Hibbeln was very good at making sure the classes that school offer work for students – that courses are sequential, and build on students’ prior knowledge.

So good, in fact, that last year she left Kearny to Diaz-Booz and went up to the Central Office. Now, she faces a much more daunting challenge: helping all district high schools develop schedules that work for kids.

It’s not necessarily the breadth of the work that’s difficult to overcome. It’s tradition.

Getting high schools to switch from the old school ESL classes to a sheltered instruction model isn’t an easy task, especially because it takes a lot of thought to make sheltered instruction effective. But it certainly seems within reach. So why are so many schools stuck in the old way?

“It’s not because principals don’t want these things for kids. It’s because we’re so mired in tradition and history that we can’t think outside the box,” Hibbeln said.

“There’s no reflection about courses each kid needs to advance. We just as a system are not at that place. We’re going to get there. We’re just not there, yet.”

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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